Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.
I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.
A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.
The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.
Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.
At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.
But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.
I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.
So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.
Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.
The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.
Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.
A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.